Thursday, March 20, 2008 at 5:00 AM
It's been only a week since Senator Barack Obama's relationship with his former pastor Rev. Jeremiah Wright became the top political story across the country. But questions about Wright's controversial sermons were raised in Cleveland two weeks earlier, when the presidential candidate met privately with Jewish leaders here. ideastream's Tasha Flournoy reports.
The Sunday morning meeting came less than 24 hours after Barack Obama's campaign rally at Cleveland Public Hall. Those who attended the exclusive event - which was closed to the press - saw it as an opportunity to have a one-on-one time with Obama, to hear his positions on issues important to the Jewish community, such as the continuing violence between Israelis and Palestinians.
Barack Obama:Israel's security is sacrosanct, it's non-negotiable…. Israel has to remain a Jewish State and what I believe that means is that any negotiated peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians is going to have to involve the Palestinians relinquishing the right of return as it has been understood in the past.
When his speech was concluded, the first question out of the audience dealt with his relationship with Rev. Wright, the former pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Church in Chicago, and Obama's longtime mentor. According to transcripts, Obama told the predominantly Jewish crowd that Wright occasionally says controversial things and lacked sensitivity, and that he - Obama - had never heard any anti-Semitic statement made inside of his church. The issue was dropped there, and the questions shifted to other issues.
But since that day in February, Wright's inflammatory sermons have topped the headlines and circulated throughout the internet and on cable news channels. In one - a 2002 sermon that aired on Fox News - Wright rails in the same breath against racism in America and Israel's stance toward Palestinians.
Rev. Jeremiah Wright: Somebody dared to point out the racism which still supports both here and in Israel. I say that dirty word again. Every time you say Israel, Negros get awfully quiet on you cause they're scared. Don't be scared. Don't be scared. You don't see the connection between 9-11-01 and the Israeli/Palestinian? Something wrong, you wanna borrow my glasses?
Michael Bennett, the publisher of the Cleveland Jewish News, attended the meeting with Jewish leaders last month, and says the crowd their appeared enamored with Obama's star power and charisma. He also listened to Obama's speech Tuesday - in which he denounced Wright's inflammatory rhetoric, while at the same time refusing to disown his former pastor.
Barack Obama: Did I know him to be an occasionally fierce critic of American domestic and foreign policy? Of course. Did I ever hear him make remarks that could be considered controversial while I sat in church? Yes. Did I strongly disagree with many of his political views? Absolutely - just as I'm sure many of you have heard remarks from your pastors, priests, or rabbis with which you strongly disagreed.
Bennett says Obama's response to the firestorm over Reverend Wright leaves questions, and he wants more explanation from Obama.
Michael Bennett: If I'm sitting in synagogue and my rabbi says something I disagree with, the first thing that I'm going to do is walk down to the end of the aisle after he's done speaking and ask him about it. And question him about it and if I'm not satisfied, it's going to make an issue about it. He never acknowledges that he did that.
While questions still linger for Bennett, Ari Maron is more accepting of Obama's explanation. Maron is a Cleveland real estate developer who also attended Obama's February meeting with Jewish leaders. He says he's over the controversy, and wants Obama to continue facilitating conversations on race.
Ari Maron: Not only do I think have we moved on from this discussion of his relationship with Rev. Wright, but we've moved into, I think hopefully, a whole new discussion about how we can talk about race in this country, which is incredibly important in a city like Cleveland, which today is the second most segregated city in this country.
It's unclear if Cleveland is second - Census researchers put the city among the top five. Nevertheless, voters like Maron are calling upon Obama to bridge communities - something Obama wants to be the cornerstone of his campaign.
Tasha Flournoy, 90.3.